Debra Ruder Communications

Writing that matters

The letter

It happens all the time: Once you start paying attention to a social issue, medical condition, or even a fashion trend, you notice it everywhere.

Since I bean focusing on goodbyes at the end of life two years ago, I’ve found stories around every corner — at parties and conferences, through friends and colleagues, on the radio and at the movies.

Many of the people I’ve interviewed or observed carry warm memories of conversations with a relative, friend, or even patient whose time is short. But others harbor sadness, guilt, and regret for goodbyes that never happened, or words they felt came out the wrong way. Happily, I’ve also seen how many of these people have found ways to honor the person they missed and say farewell after the fact.

One of those people is Lynn. We met shortly after attending the funeral of my cousin, Alan, at Arlington National Cemetery in January 2007. Lynn happened to drive me to the airport after the reception and told me about his relationship with Alan, a career military man whom Lynn considered a friend and mentor. Alan was an Army lieutenant colonel who specialized in decoding radio signals, and Lynn was assigned to his unit in the mid-1960s. They traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad, and Alan taught him many leadership and management skills. Later, they worked together at the Federal Aviation Administration, where Alan was security director.

Alan had developed cancer in recent years, and although Lynn knew he was seriously ill, he didn’t have a chance to thank Alan directly for his support and friendship over the years. So soon after Alan’s death in November 2006, Lynn composed a heartfelt letter to Alan’s wife, Charlotte, to express what Alan had meant to him. This is how he described Alan’s leadership style toward his Army intelligence unit:

“Alan wanted nothing but the best from all of us, yet he got this from each of us by leading by example and assuring that we all had fun along the way. In a military environment it would have been easy for Alan just to give orders to the rest of us and sit back and expect us to follow through. This was not Alan’s way, as he worked alongside us to make sure we completed a quality job on schedule. He did this without sacrificing or compromising his authority. I really respected this technique and used it with success when I was put into leadership positions that came my way during my own career.”

Lynn went on to recall family vacations, boat trips, and meals they had shared over the years. “I will deeply miss Alan,” he wrote, “but my life has been profoundly impacted by him. I am sorry that the thoughts and feelings expressed in this letter were not communicated directly to Alan, but I believe that he knew of the respect and admiration that I felt for him.”

Consider this . . .

You can say goodbye after someone has died by writing a letter of remembrance to that person -– or to his/her partner, parent, or child.

Some other ways to say goodbye: Attend the funeral or memorial service, post a message online, recite a prayer, carry on the person’s work, or take part in a charity event to honor the person who has passed away.